THE INTERVIEW: Rob Swift
Not just your average DJ, Rob Swift is a brilliant turntablist who has worked with the likes of Linkin Park, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mike Patton, Bob James, and Herbie Hancock to name a few. He’s been part of the legendary turntablist crew X-ecutioners and has recently joined back up with two of his fellow original members to form Ill Insanity. Rob just released his new DVD As The Technics Spin and I had the chance to sit down with him to discuss the film, how he put’s his insanely intricate routine’s together and why hip-hop needs to get back to it’s roots.
How did you get into becoming a turntablist?
This story is a well-known one. I grew up watching my dad DJ. My parents are Columbian immigrants. They’re from Cali, Columbia, and he would spin salsa music, meringue, cumbia, all the Latin rhythms from Columbia and all over South America, and my dad would have my brother and I help him carry his equipment to the parties he was hired to DJ at. All his friends knew that he DJ’ed, so they would hire him to DJ at birthdays, weddings, New Years Eve parties, all kinds of festive events. So I would go with my dad and my brother would come along and we would help him carry the equipment and set up everything. So I was around it as a child and I have memories of watching my dad make other people dance and enjoy the music and enjoy themselves as these Latin rhythms were playing. That was my first example of what DJ’ing was and what a DJ does at a party. I was lucky enough to have an older brother into hip-hop and he was apart of that first wave of B-Boys and graffiti artists, MC’s and DJ’s. He was a part of that whole movement in his own way, so what my brother would do on our days off from school, he would invite his friends from school over to our house, because my dad had all this equipment and he would tell them to bring their parents record collections. Their parents would have like James Brown and Aretha Franklin, and all the breakbeats that rappers of today rap over and sample. My brother’s friends had these originals. They would bring their records over to our house and they would make mixtapes throughout the day on our day off. I would sit there in the living room and all day I’d watch my brother cut it up on the turntables and his friends would be rapping. My brother would use our dad’s equipment without my dad knowing, so come 4ish, my brother would kick everybody out and put everything back exactly the way my dad left it. He would come in and not know we used his equipment. This went on for years, and you know what’s funny though, is that I think my dad started catching on because he started taking his cartridges out of the turntables, and my mom had a makeup case, and he would put the cartridges in the case and there was a lock to it, so he kind of caught on that we were using his equipment and he started locking up the cartridges so we couldn’t use them, but my brother would take my mom’s hair pins and pick the locks, take the needles out, use them, and then put them back. So that was my exposure to hip hop DJ’ing. Eventually I got tired of sitting around and I asked my brother to teach me and he taught me the ropes.
In the film, you mentioned that all of your routines are not improvised at all but are actually structured. What is the process like for you in the studio piecing your routines and interpretations together?
It starts with some sort of inspiration to want to work on a routine and want to practice. So I could be at home watching a Bruce Lee movie or listening to a speech by Malcolm X or I could be listening to music and be inspired by some artist or a specific song, or I could just be talking on the phone with a friend about DJ’ing or having a conversation like this will spark me to want to get up, cause you kind of remember that feeling you get when you practice. So it starts with some sort of spark and then I just start flipping around records trying to find something that moves me, that makes me want to manipulate that specific song or a specific part in that song. Then it’s a gradual process of redefining these parts that move me, that I think the crowd I’m going to perform in front of I’m going to connect with. On some days a routine will come together in minutes or hours, other days a routine will come together in a matter of day or weeks. In the movie, I remember the “Nobody Beats the Biz” routine I came up with. There’s sections to that routine and I developed those sections over a matter of days. I just kept practicing and kept bumping into new things and then once I felt like I was tapped out, like I exhausted every possible avenue to create something from that record, then I tried to piece it all together and practiced actually performing the routine, so it’s steps within steps. You’ve got to practice. It’s repetition. The more you do it the more your muscles start to remember how to move, how many rotations to spin the record back. Everything that I do when performing is without headphones, so a lot of it is muscle memory.
Have you ever been approached by the original artists who’s songs you manipulate, with any feedback on what you’ve done to them?
Actually, I have. Biz Markie, everytime I see him, it never fails. He’s like, “Yo, teach me the routine you have for Nobody Beats the Biz.” Because Biz Markie DJs now. He made his debut in hip-hop as a beatboxer, then he started rapping, and now he DJs for a living. So every time I see him he’s like, “Could you teach me how to do the “Nobody Beats the Biz” routine so I can do it with my own record?” So yeah, that’s a great feeling to know I took someone else’s creation and redefined it and they appreciated what I did to something that they created. So it’s definitely a cool feeling.
I noticed that when you’re performing, it takes an awful lot of energy to do those kinds of routines, and your obviously in good shape and work out. Do you find that going to the gym is sort of like a physical training for what you do?
I think so. But I don’t think you have to be in shape from an athletic gym rat point of view to be that fast. I know DJ’s that don’t work out who are just as fast and can do all the tricks but I will say that working out has helped me. I’ve been working out for about two and a half years, not that long, and I notice now, because I’m in the gym so often, I could go weeks without practicing due to touring or whatever it is I’m caught up doing and when I go to touch the turntables, I feel like I never stopped practicing, like my hands are just ready to go, ready to scratch at will, and when I compare it to my pre-workout days, I remember if I didn’t practice for a week or two, it would take me hours just to warm up. So, I think lifting weights builds a certain strength in your arms and your wrists that allow you to hop right on and not allow you to go through a warm up stage. So I definitely feel like working out is a big help. From a stamina point of view, obviously standing around for hours, the gym has helped me be prepared that much more physically for what it takes to do what I do as a DJ.
In the DVD, you talk about bringing emotion to the crowd when performing. For those out there that may not know your name yet, please explain what you bring your audience at your live shows.
When I’m by myself, it’s like listening to a one man band so to speak. The beauty of Dj’ing with the act of scratching or beat juggling is that you become the instrument for the sound that you’re using. If you watch a violin player playing a violin, it’s just that musician with his or her violin perform. But when you’re watching a DJ, I have access to a wide range of sounds, so one minute, I’m drums, the next minute I’m a vocalist and I’m rearranging words and I’m taking one sentence off a song and making the sentence say something else. Or I’m doing a routine like the Latin scratch routine in my movie, for those who haven’t seen it yet, I have a routine off this remake of a Latin song called “Just One of Those Things” where the song plays and I replicate all of the instrumentation throughout the song. I guess my point is that it doesn’t get boring because I’m constantly changing, I’m constantly taking my audience through ups and downs. So watching me live is something. If you haven’t seen a DJ like myself on stage, you should because it’s an experience that is going to make you appreciate why we call ourselves musicians. Watching me in a group setting, like in my group Ill Insanity, that’s a whole other kind of excitement because now your watching three people, all working together in sync, doing things and complementing each other to sound like an actual band on turntables. Dj’ing, whether it’s one person, like myself live or watching my group Ill Insanity, it’s definitely something you have to witness in person.
Do you have a preference to work solo, as part of the X-Men, or with other artists like Mike Patton?
I don’t necessarily have a preference. There’s pro’s and con’s to every situation. When I’m performing with Ill Insanity-Total Eclipse and DJ Precision-it’s fun because I’m kind of feeding off the energy of other DJ’s, my peers, and its fun to redefine the whole meaning of a band. Because we’re not using guitars, drums, and bass guitars, we’re using turntables but we’re sounding like a band and the energy I create with the guys is just crazy. Then performing with a band, let’s say Bob James, that in itself is also a great feeling because I’m actually up there jamming with real musicians in the traditional sense. I’m up there with my turntables and when I look to my side, there’s a guy on drums killing it or a guy on saxophone, and here I am on turntables meshing with these guys who are classically trained musicians that are reading actual notes. There are also strengths to performing by myself where I kind of dictate where I take my music on stage. When performing with a band or a group of other DJ’s you have to limit yourself in a way because you can’t be on a different page than everyone else on stage with you. You have to pace yourself to go along with the pace that everyone else is going at. I remember I did a performance with Bob James in Japan. I did a tour with him and we played The Blue Note and one of the guys who worked at The Blue Note pulled me aside after one of the shows and was like “Wow, I want to see more of what you do. I want to see you go crazy and do what I’ve seen you do on Youtube.” I had to explain to him that it’s not my show. I can’t go crazy. I have to tone it down and make sure that what I do compliments what’s happening on stage with Bob. I can’t try to overshadow Bob. I can’t just break out into a Rob Swift extravaganza. So in that sense, it’s hard sometimes. But I jump at every opportunity to work with bands other DJ’s, and perform with other people because it’s fun and it keeps it interesting.
During your live performance with Jazz great Bob James, there’s a moment where he looks almost floored by what you were doing. Did you ever imagine the turntable playing such a vital role in music?
In the 90s, there was a renaissance that took place with DJ’ing where you had the Invisible Scratch Pickles coming out of the West Coast, the Beat Junkies, the X-Men from the East Coast, and around then I realized that DJ’ing was going to change music, and it has for the better. To a degree I did know that we were going to make our mark on the music industry.
You seem pretty comfortable mixing and working with different genres of music from latin jazz to Aerosmith. Is there anything that’s off limits?
Nothing’s off limits. It can’t be because once you limit yourself to a specific genre of music when you’re DJ’ing, then your limiting your potential to create something instantaneously. If I went around saying I’m only going to cut up rap songs like “Welcome to the Terrordome” by Public Enemy or “Nobody Beats the Biz” by BizMarkie and Marley Marl, I would have never come up with the Latin scratch routine or the “Funky for You” routine that I perform in the movie, which is more of a funk record. I never would have come up with the routine with “Funky Drummer” from James Brown, if I only limited myself to just rap records. So because of that, you can’t exclude any genre of music. You have to open yourself to everything. Who knows, tomorrow I might start messing around with an African record and see what I come up with. Opening yourself to other forms of music when creating or spinning out, makes it so that you’re building a wider audience, so yeah, I never limit myself in any way. I try not to at least.
As a manipulator of music, what is the weirdest combination of songs that you didn’t think would work together but did?
There’s a routine I performed with Ill Insanity and for those that have seen the show know what I’m talking about. There’s a section in our stage show where we go from Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” to Rick James “Super Freak” and although I try not to limit myself, those are two records I never thought to manipulate and I was pleasantly surprised when we figured out a way to transition from the Tone Loc song to the Rick James song and make it seamless. When we did it in front of a crowd for the first time, I remember those two songs got the most reaction out of the crowd out of everything we did in an hour set. I think it’s because people didn’t expect us to play those two songs. It’s two songs you wouldn’t picture East Coast DJ’s playing and then to kill it on the turntables and to manipulate and add all these tricks to it. I remember the crowd just went nuts and that was one of those moments that goes to show that you never know what your audience may react to. You may think they may not react to something but you have to try it and see if it works live.
Here’s a “What if” question. What if you could only bring five records to a show to perform with, what would they be?
It would have to be the Latin jazz song “Just one of those Things,” my Missy Elliot routine “Get Your Freak On,” the routine I have with “The Bridge” and PE with the buzz sound, my “Doctor Knockboots” routine by NAS, and round it off with my routine with “Rock the Bells.” Each of those routines has a special kind of meaning with me and I think with my fans. The Latin scratch routine is my way of showing that I embrace other forms of music and what I do on stage as a performer. The “Get Your Freak On” routine is the kind of routine that if girls in the crowd are not interested in what’s going on, a lot of times, girls are there with their boyfriends and they just want to party and dance, and they don’t care how dope of a scratcher you are or how dope of a beat juggler you are, when you throw that record on, it automatically gets their attention. They know Missy Elliot and can identify with her music, so once you start doing your tricks to that song, they get it. That’s what I’ve noticed in the responses I’ve gotten. I think “The Bridge” and the PE routine encompasses what I do. I’m trying to be a musician on stage and what I’m doing with the pitch and breaking down the drums, just the whole composition of that routine, if there was an alien that came down from outer space and came to the club and watched me DJ, that routine alone would help him understand what it is I do, I think. He doesn’t necessarily have to know the records to understand that I’m making music. The “Doctor Knockboots” is just a fan favorite from the Scratch movie. I always get requests to do that. Then “Rock the Bells” is always a cool way to cap off my sets. It has a lot of energy and I’m just going super fast. It always raises the adrenaline level in the audience like ten notches, so those would be the five.
What directions would you like to see hip-hop and turntablism take in the future that they have not taken yet or should take?
I feel that people need to be more unique. The great thing about the 90s, even the 80s as far as hip-hop is concerned was that there were so many different kinds of hip-hop artists. You had Biz Markie who was funny and didn’t take himself seriously. You had someone like Big Daddy Kane, who was lyrical and like a Don Juan, always looking fresh and smooth. You had someone like LL Cool J who was energetic. You watched him on stage, and I’m talking about LL from the 80s and the 90s, you hear him and your sweating cause he’s yelling and giving 100% of himself in all his raps. Then you have someone like Ice Cube who was talking about West Coast stuff like gang violence. You had so many different types of artists, and all these artists would work with different producers. Now you have artists that all sound the same and all talk about the same topics: money and women. I don’t know how many songs you can make about how much money you have. It’s just incredible to me that this is what is being exposed out there to fans of music. To a degree it seems like people are eating it up and I’m just glad that I was a part of the era before that. So if there was one thing that I would change about music, I would want people to be more original.